June 1, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Kevin Brockmeier's latest novel The Illumination, people's physical pain becomes visible to others. Six characters' stories are told in lyrical and evocative prose as Brockmeier explores the nature of suffering, love, and our connection to each other.
I read an advance copy of the novel last year, then picked up the book again this past week to refresh my memory. I rarely re-read books, but once I read the first few paragraphs, I was drawn into the book yet again. Kevin Brockmeier's writing is that enchanting.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This is a radiant, bewitching, and profoundly inquisitive novel of sorrow, perseverance, and wonderment."
The Illumination posits a world that resembles our own in every way but one—that people in pain have begun to shed light, making their suffering immediately visible to everyone around them.
This equation, of pain with light, dictates the book's movement and complexion and gives rise to the questions at its center: What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? How would that change the way we perceive each other, the way we perceive life and death? How would it change the greater functions of society, or would it change them at all?
The narrative follows six characters in turn—a data analyst, a photojournalist, a schoolchild, a missionary, a writer, and a street vendor—each of whom is enduring an injury of one sort or another, some of them physical, some psychological or spiritual.
Six sections, six characters, six songs:
1. "The Strong in Spirit" by Hugh Blumenfeld (from the album The Strong in Spirit)
"The strong in spirit wear bright clothes of fire / They dance and burn. The light is worth the pain / The light is worth the pain / The pain stops when the flame dies out."
Carol Ann Page injures herself opening a package with a carving knife, severing the tip of her thumb, and emerges from her anesthetic slumber to find that her pain—and everyone else's—has been transformed into light. Her attempt to recuperate and construct a new life for herself introduces the novel, and Hugh Blumenfeld's quiet hymn of loss and transcendence, written for his mother as she lay dying in the hospital, provides the epigraph to her portion of the book.
2. "Bleed Like There Was No Other Flood" by Wildbirds & Peacedrums (from the album Rivers)
"The light / It moves too fast when she's awake / She's a turtle and it's a plague."
After Jason Williford's wife dies in a car accident, he takes solace in his wounds, his torn ligaments and broken bones, in each white surge of forgetfulness. He doubts if he will ever mend, and he's not sure he wants to. This Wildbirds & Peacedrums song, from my favorite album of the past year, allows the Sarah Vaughan-on-painkillers vocals of Mariam Wallentin, the expert percussion-work of Andreas Werliin, and the choral accompaniment of the Schola Cantorum to carry the full testimony of its passion and grief.
3. "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen (from the album The Future)
"Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in."
Chuck Carter, ten years old, sees light wherever he looks. Every dented can gives a great silent cry of pain. Every pencil is sharpened in a torture of silver blades. How can he live in a world that's so frightening? His pretend dad smacks him and calls him a retard. Todd Rosenthal won't stop imitating his strange skinny wincing walk. I hear Chuck's voice in this stately Leonard Cohen song. Its slow beats approximate the wavelike rhythms of his mind. Inside them both is a life persisting despite its agonies.
4. "This Could Be My Last Day" by Duke Special (from the album Songs from the Deep Forest)
"I touch your grave, it comforts me / And tells me to be true / Everyone's a burning star / And time is running through."
Ryan Shifrin, a Christian missionary who has lost his sister to cancer, spends the rest of his life investigating the dim traces of God he sees in the illnesses, brutalities, and tribulations of the world. It's his section of the novel that investigates the theological implications of its central conceit: not merely what if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us, but what if our pain was what made us beautiful to God? I can imagine this piano ballad, one of the saddest and most tranquil in Irish pop performer Duke Special's oeuvre, accompanying Ryan on his journey.
5. "Body's in Trouble" by Mary Margaret O'Hara (from the album Miss America)
"You just want to run somebody / And a body won't let you / Want to let somebody and a body won't let / You just want to kiss somebody / You want to feel somebody / And a body won't let you."
Nina Poggione is touring in support of her new collection, The Age of Girls and Boys, trying to persist in the face of a long and mysterious sickness that, with its pathology of ceaseless mouth ulcers, has made it painful for her to talk, eat, drink, laugh, and smile. Mary Margaret O'Hara's gorgeous stop-start lament for the trials of physical being could play behind every sentence of this story. The song is from O'Hara's extraordinary (and lone) full-length release, Miss America. Why this album isn't as famous as Pet Sounds or Highway 61 Revisited, I have no idea.
6. "The Light Pours Out of Me" by Magazine (from the album Real Life)
"The cold light of day / Pours out of me / Leaving me black / And so healthy."
Morse Putnam Strawbridge, homeless, aging, and tangled in his fixations, sells books from a blanket on the streets of the city, battling a strange sympathetic condition that leaves him vulnerable to experiencing the thoughts of the people around him. In the way his portion of the novel keeps departing from and returning to the mind at its center, I was hoping to capture something like the mood and drive of Magazine's great post-punk anthem of careening paranoia, like a spring wound so tightly on itself it could break at any second.
Kevin Brockmeier and The Illumination links:
All Things Considered review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Dallas Morning News review
The House Next Door review
Los Angeles Times review
The Millions review
New York Times review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Brief History of the Dead
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The View from the Seventh Layer
The Lit Show interview with the author
Oxford American interview with the author
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists